Despite delays, SpaceX still winning commercial launch business

F9 Thaicom 6 launch

A Falcon 9 v1.1 lifts off from Cape Canaveral on January 6, 2014, carrying the Thaicom 6 satellite. (credit: SpaceX)

Early this year, SpaceX said it planned to carry out ten launches in 2014, and appeared to be on the fast track after launching the Thaicom 6 satellite in early January. Since then, though, the company has done only one other launch—a cargo resupply mission to the ISS in April—while the launch of six ORBCOMM satellites has been delayed from mid-May to, now, mid-July. That makes it increasingly unlikely it will meet its goal of ten launches by the end of 2014.

Yet, those delays do not appear to have deterred customers, even those mainstream commercial communications satellite customers that have, traditionally, valued schedule over cost. On Wednesday, Inmarsat announced a launch contract with SpaceX for at least one, and perhaps up to three, missions through the end of the decade. “We believe that SpaceX has demonstrated tremendous successful progress in its launch capabilities and is now a fully-credible provider of vehicles to support geostationary missions,” Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pearce said in the statement.

The deal covers the launch of one satellite that is a joint venture between Inmarsat and Hellas-sat, a Greek satellite operator owned by another satellite company, Arabsat. The satellite, known as EuropaSat by Inmarsat and Hellas-sat 3 by Hellas-sat, will be built by Thales Alenia Space under a contract announced last month. That satellite is slated for launch in 2016.

The Inmarsat-SpaceX deal also includes opportunities for two additional launches. One would be for the fourth in the Inmarsat-5 series of spacecraft, scheduled to be ready for launch in mid-2016. Inmarsat has not made a firm decision on when to launch it, a decision that will depend on whether it needs to launch a replacement for one of the first three or wants to use the fourth satellite to serve additional demand. A second additional launch would be used for an unspecified future satellite. That could be an Inmarsat-6 series spacecraft, although the company notes it has made no decisions on who would build those satellites, “and a first launch is targeted only towards the end of the decade.”

Inmarsat said that it plans to use the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle for those missions. That vehicle has yet to fly, with a first launch now likely no sooner than the first half of 2015. However, Inmarsat adds in the announcement it “will retain the possibility of using a Falcon 9 as an alternative, providing further launch flexibility.” It’s worth noting that EuropaSat/Hellas-sat 3 is designed to weigh about 5,900 kilograms, well above the stated payload capacity of the Falcon 9.

So why would Inmarsat, a leading provider of mobile satellite communications services, sign a deal with SpaceX? Pearce hinted at the answer in the press release: “In view of capacity constraints in the satellite launch market, Inmarsat believes that securing optionality today is an important business safeguard to mitigate future launch schedule risk.”

Inmarsat, and some other commercial launch customers, are worried about other constraints in the launch market that could delay their launches. International Launch Services (ILS), the US-based company that markets Russia’s Proton, is waiting for that rocket to return to flight after its latest launch failure in May; Russian officials said Wednesday they expect launches to resume in two to three months, with a domestic Russian satellite first in line to fly. Arianespace has been forced to juggle its schedules when a satellite for an upcoming flight required repairs. Sea Launch returned to flight in late May after a launch failure in early 2013, but the future of the Russian-owned company, which uses Zenit rockets manufactured in Ukraine, has been clouded by the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

So, while SpaceX suffers from some near-term problems launching satellites, its promise of high flight rates, as much as its low prices, makes it an attractive relief valve for companies worried that there’s not enough capacity among the other major commercial launch providers.

6 comments to Despite delays, SpaceX still winning commercial launch business

  • Gary Warburton

    If SpaceX refused to do Shelby`s red tape night mare and stated it planned to drop out of the commercial crew and move else where what would be the consequences?

    • g.r.r.

      First off, Less than 1/3 of their launches are with the feds.
      Secondly, and more importantly, SpaceX would have a fully human launch system that Bigelow AeroSpace could use. And I have no doubt that Musk would then push Bigelow to get his system up there quickly.

      Third, the real loser would be USA. For starters, CST-100 uses atlas which the first stage is pretty much foreign and the engine is Russian. As such, Boeing would have issues with Russia controlling the situation. And Boeing would charge a lot more for launching humans.

      Fourth, I would guess that GOP supporters and backers of Shelby for doing this would backfire on them and costs them several senators. Not Shelby, but others.

  • Pete Zaitcev

    I am surprised Inmarsat didn’t try to launch with Sea Launch more. Despite the bad publicity their long term reliabiltiy is not worse than ILS’ Proton. Or, what the heck, they could’ve tried to deal with the Japanese for H-IIA. The market is not that badly constrained even without Chinese.

    • g.r.r.

      I think that it was all about price. SpaceX has 100% success rate (on primary; and the one failure was still a partial since the company found out all that they wanted). SpaceX may have delays, BUT, it is obvious that they are gearing up their production. As long as they keep price down and success at 100%, they will no doubt win more commercial launches.

  • JayJay

    Other than litigation where is the true response from the rest of the industry? I can’t help but think they’re hoping that SpaceX will have some sort of spectacular failure and Musk and his company will just go away.

    The response is the same here in Europe; limited re-organization, some cost cutting but no real innovation.

    If/when Musk and SpaceX stick the landing of a F9R first stage on land, the game will be almost over. What happens when SpaceX instead of charging a jaw droppingly low price of ~$64m per launch suddenly come up with ~$20m? Well then nobody buys Arianne a drink, ULA are screwed in the end even with their clever move on the block buy. The Russians will seriously feel the pinch on commercial launch as if they don’t have enough issues to deal with anyway.

    So not much competition really. The Chinese are looking at glide back on a first stage but other than Skylon – which will likely not be funded in time, our best best is that Musk will release the patents on this too.

    • Neil

      ESA has stated that they can’t survive without a commercial market component. That’s assuming that the European governments don’t decide, for purely political reasons, to increase subsidies.
      Russia, China and India will continue to pursue mostly government programs.
      U.S. who knows? Again politics.

      But I think most commercials would go to SpaceX assuming they can handle them assuming that their prices do drop significantly and the reliability continues in terms of launch success.

      Skylon is interesting but I’ve yet to understand the business case. It seems such a technically difficult motor. There are kilometers of very fine tubing. QA’s going to be a nightmare. Personally can’t see it becoming operational.


Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>